The Approaching Showdown over California's Zero Emissions Mandate

By · April 19, 2013

EV charging in Laguna Beach

Charging a row of EVs in Laguna Beach, California. The state definitely leads the nation in public charging infrastructure. (Flickr/LukeGordon1)

It’s taking on the aspects of a showdown. California wants automakers to fall into line and agree to comply with its Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) plan. But some carmakers don’t see that consumers are going to want them—they see the expensive cars they build at great expense building up on dealer lots.

And now California Air Resources Board head Mary Nichols is ramping up the confrontation. “Talk about shooting yourselves in the foot, or maybe I could say, tripping over your own halo,” she said about the automakers’ appeal at a Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) conference. “We don't have time to delay the infusion of these technologies.”

More Than a Million Cars?

The state plan sees a smooth transition to 1.4 million battery electric and plug-in hybrids on state roads by 2025. Some 500,000 of them would be either battery cars or fuel-cell vehicles. It’s hoped that in 12 years, one in seven cars sold, 15.4 percent, will use plugs.

There's some evidence to justify the automakers’ position, solely based on battery car sales so far. Yes, California has by far the most robust network for public charging and healthy EV sales. Currently, one in 40 sales there are plug ins. But the state mandate applies to car companies, not to consumers, and there would have to be a massive change in attitude to get to one in seven sales.

Consumers in the Driver's Seat

I talked to Gloria Bergquist, a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), and she was blunt:

“Automakers have invested billions of dollars in new powertrains, including zero emission vehicles like plug-in hybrids, fully electric vehicles and hydrogen cars, so automakers have a huge stake in their success in the marketplace. The reality is that consumers are in the driver's seat when it comes to putting ZEVs on California roads. While automakers have invested heavily in these technologies and are working hard to sell them, the ZEV mandate carries no requirement that consumers buy them. So this is a ‘Field of Dreams’ mandate: if we build the cars, the customers will come and buy them. We hope so, but if not, the state will need to revisit the mandate.”

To be fair, California is not expecting the cars to sell themselves. The state has a “ZEV Action Plan” released in February. By 2020, it assumes all of this:

  • The state’s ZEV infrastructure will be able to support up to one million vehicles.
  • The costs of ZEVs will be competitive with conventional combustion vehicles.
  • ZEVs will be accessible to mainstream consumers.
  • There will be widespread use of ZEVs for public transportation and freight transportation.

The State Steps Up

The state is putting its money where its mouth is—“10 percent of state departments’ light-duty fleet purchases must be ZEVs, climbing to 25 percent of light duty purchases by 2020.” The state realizes that, in its own words, “Many consumers are unaware that ZEVs are available for purchase or lease,” and many don’t fully understand the benefits—such as the free use of High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes. Expanding consumer awareness and demand is goal #2 of the state plan, as well it should be.

Bergquist points to Nichols’ statement that EV sales are up “five times” from what they were a year ago. But she wants to put that in context—last year, there were 50,000 plug-in and battery car sales nationwide, up from 10,000 in 2011. In March, 4,553 were sold. The numbers are not big.

California is being very proactive about EVs, and that’s a good thing. My worry is solely that the ramp up required by the mandates is too optimistic for what consumers will actually want to do. There’s no question that the EV revolution is underway. But it’s the pace of it that’s still in question. My hope, of course, is that EV acceptance will outpace the mandate and there will be an EV in nearly every driveway by 2025.

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